This week I start rehearsals for a Glück Opera at Sadler’s Wells Theatre which has brought back naked memories of being covered with a mud facepack and my head being dipped in raspberry syrup. It’s for the German based, Pina Bausch Dance Company and apart from singing I have no idea what will be involved. Glück’s Iphigenie en Tauride was actually my first professional engagement as a singer.
In my final year of Guildhall – many moons ago – I went on a four week, summer school at Dartington in Devon. The course was grandly entitled Music, The Mask and Mime – or something equally enticing. The composer in residence was Harrison Birtwistle – a famously dour, Lancastrian and together with another composer John Woolrich, my bemused colleagues and I set out on four weeks of improvisation, confusion and discovery. Three things from this time stick in my mind – the constant rain – a terribly embarrassing incident with an alarm clock during a live radio broadcast, which I was convinced would end my career before it had even started – and
an unexpected audition with the notorious, Australian opera director, David Freeman.
When the course finished and I returned home to my digs in London, I got a call offering me a part as one of five chorus members in Opera Factory ZÃ¼rich’s revival of GlÃ¼ck’s Iphigenia, which would rehearse in Switzerland and go on to perform at the Adelaide Festival in Australia. Imaging my delight – especially after I thought I’d committed such a heinous alarm clock crime that I would never work again as a musician. (Maybe I’ll write about that incident in another blog post, but, in the manner of Ronnie Corbett – I digress). I was in my final year at College and at first they said i couldn’t have the four weeks off – fortunately my wonderful singing teacher, Laura Sarti convinced them that this experience was too good a chance to miss and the ‘powers that be’ finally relented.
The Opera was a very dark piece about human sacrifice and our costume was mostly made up of a mudpack and a rough-hewn, rag skirt – for both boys and girls. My Dad later said that the set resembled a large,curved, dog turd – and I know what he meant. We spent a lot of time trying to look very primitive, hiding in our burrows and grooming each other before our big chorus number.Â (I have censored this picture but you get the idea!) We then crept off, removed our skirt, dipped our heads in a bucket of raspberry syrup and jumped onto stage on all fours looking like the dogs of war. We sang whilst shaking our heads and getting red splatter all over the front row. After that we had a quick wash and re-applied the mud, which was hastily dried by stage management armed with hairdryers. Complete with skirts again, we slowly appeared in our burrows as if nothing had happened. When you’re young and you’ve had 6 weeks of intensive rehearsal you really don’t think anything of such adventures. Also the shows were in Australia so I didn’t think anybody I knew would see me.
Two years later the show was revived at the QEH on London’s South Bank.
My Dad whispered to my little sister on opening night “I can recognise Heather’s bare bum anywhere”. The rather unfortunate thing about the final scene was after a big onstage fight your mud rather wore off on any parts of your body that stuck out. They then brought up the lights and we had to line up and do a bow. The QEH is quite an intimate venue and we were very close to the front row of the audience.
A few years ago I was given some complimentary tickets to see a BBC Singers Concert in a large Church in Hove as part of the Brighton Festival. There was to be a premiere of a new piece written by John Woolrich (remember him, from the original Dartington Summer School course?). He walked down the aisle of the church towards the comp seats and I said “Hello John, you probably won’t remember me.”
“Heather Cairncross” he bellowed loudly, rather upsetting the fine ladies of Hove, “I remember your breasts!”
It turned out he’d been sitting in the front row of the QEH right in front ofÂ my bow. I’d obviously made an impression…..
So, I was very glad to hear we would be wearing all black for the Pina Bausch ballet and our clothes should come to our neck and cover all of our skin except our faces.
To be continued…….
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